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Promotion and protection of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities at international level

The European Commission expresses its support for the adoption of a legally binding instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. The Commission announces its intention to participate actively in the preparation of this instrument.


Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament of 24 January 2003 "Towards a United Nations legally binding instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities" [COM(2003) 16 final – Not published in the Official Journal].


Equal rights which are often ignored in practice

Human rights are vested in all human beings and everyone is entitled to the enjoyment of those rights without distinction of any kind.

If this principle, which is clearly established in international instruments to protect human rights, obviously applies to people with disabilities, in reality the latter do not however always benefit from the effective enjoyment of these rights.

People with disabilities are often marginalised because they develop in an environment which is unaware of the consequences of their disabilities. They encounter many physical, technical and social obstacles to the enjoyment of their rights in all regions of the world (even if this situation is more accentuated in the developing countries).

Human rights violations against disabled people generally take the form of indirect discrimination, including the creation and maintenance of barriers preventing disabled people from enjoying full social, economic and political participation in the life of their communities. Countries generally have a narrow understanding of human rights vis-à-vis disabled people and make do with abstaining from measures which have a negative impact on them.

It is necessary to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against and to enable them to avail of their rights and exercise them in the same way as other persons.

Added value of a legally binding international instrument

Certain populations are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. In order to take these particularities into account, legally binding thematic instruments have been adopted in the framework of the United Nations (racial discrimination, discrimination against women, children). These Conventions have demonstrated added value and complementarity with existing Human Rights instruments.

The preparation of such a thematic instrument concerning people with disabilities will, on the one hand, make it possible to clarify and make more visible the principle according to which people with disabilities have the same rights as the rest of humanity. On the other hand, it would make it possible to supplement the existing framework in connection with the protection of human rights.

Effective implementation of the principle of non-discrimination is essential to ensure equal treatment. The instrument should protect people with disabilities against all forms of discrimination as regards access to and enjoyment of human rights. The concept of indirect discrimination (covering situations in which an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice puts some people at a particular disadvantage compared to others) is particularly important as regards people with disabilities. Besides, it is necessary to take into account the diversity of people with disabilities, as well as the fact that some of them can be victims of multiple discrimination.

The Commission insists on the participation of disability organisations and people with disabilities themselves in preparing decisions which concern them.

Article 13 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (EC Treaty) enables the Community to combat discrimination. Hence the Commission transmitted, together with this Communication, a recommendation to the Council in order to authorise the Commission to negotiate, on behalf of the European Community, the preparation in the framework of the United Nations of a comprehensive and integral international convention to protect and promote the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.


Ever since the 1970’s the United Nations has paid particularly attention to people with disabilities. The first instruments recognising the rights of people with disabilities, namely the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons and the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, were however criticised for being based on outmoded medical and welfare models of disability. The instruments subsequently adopted, in the 1980’s, have improved understanding of the general human rights conventions insofar as they relate to people with disabilities. However, there is the drawback that they are not legally binding.

Since 2002 a special committee, set up in the framework of the United Nations in the wake of its Resolution 56/168, has been examining proposals with a view to preparing a comprehensive and integral international convention to protect and promote the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.

Community policy is in line with international action.

In its Communication on equal opportunities for people with disabilities, the European Union adopted a social approach to disability, identifying the problem in the environment which fails to adapt to people with disabilities.

The Treaty of Amsterdam introduced, in the text of the Treaty establishing the European Community, an article making it possible to combat discrimination, including discrimination on the grounds of disability (Article 13). On the basis of this article, the European Community adopted Directive 2000/78/EC establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation.

The European Charter of Fundamental Rights reaffirms the prohibition on any discrimination on the ground of disability (Article 21) as well as the fundamental nature of the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, their social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the Community (Article 26).

The preparation of a legally binding instrument would make it possible to reinforce the coherence between the international and the Community action, with the support of the Commission.


Proposal for a Council Decision concerning the conclusion, by the European Community, of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [COM(2008) 530 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
The United Nations Convention is a global and integrated instrument to ensure the protection of the rights, fundamental freedoms and dignity of people with disabilities.

States Parties undertake to adopt all measures necessary to guarantee and promote their rights:

  • respect for dignity and individual autonomy, in particular through the recognition of their legal capacity and liberty of movement;
  • respect for difference and physical integrity, in particular through protection against maltreatment and exploitation;
  • equality with regard to the law, non-discrimination and legal protection;
  • freedom of expression, the right to information and education, in particular by facilitating their participation in primary and secondary education;
  • equal treatment of women and men;
  • respect for children with disabilities and the rights of children with disabilities, to ensure assistance appropriate to their age and maturity;
  • access to the physical environment, transportation, information, communication and all equipment and services for the public, both in urban and in rural areas;
  • inclusion in society and the greatest possible independence, in particular through habilitation programmes, access to services, health services and rehabilitation, employment, social protection, their participation in public and cultural life and leisure.

The Convention establishes a Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which States Parties shall submit a biannual report on measures adopted in application of the Convention. They shall establish national focal points and independent monitoring mechanisms in partnership with organisations in civil society. They will also undertake international cooperation in partnership with international organisations and competent regional organisations.

Last updated: 10.11.2008
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